I Faded Glory

The Wall-to-Wal-Martization of American Life

What we get is a downward spiral, the American Dream in reverse, where people who earn ever-less money turn to Wal-Mart for cheaper products, assuring the exportation of more jobs to ever-cheaper locales, until your S'mores Maker, prescription drugs and DVD player are being made by trained lemurs in a cave somewhere and there's no job left in America, except maybe as collection agents for Wal-Mart. Faded Glory indeed.

This probably wasn't what Sam Walton had in mind when he started his little five-and-dime in Bentonville, Arkansas. What went wrong?

I think it's that Walton only got half the equation right. I've been working with local RV tycoon John Crean on a book of his business philosophy. There are plenty of businesslike details in it, but Crean's essential rule for success consists simply of this: Your success is predicated on treating your customers and employees right. Walton saw to it that his customers got value when they shopped, but his employees and his vendors' employees were treated like just another raw material to be procured on the cheap.

That's become pervasive in corporate America, where there's no thought given to society, community or anything resembling common interest. If it can't be shown on a ledger, it doesn't matter. In a sense, we're fighting a Wal-Mart war in Iraq, where the guys on top think nothing of squeezing more effort from too few overworked troops with too little training or support. As the great hobo troubadour Utah Phillips told young audiences, "Don't ever let them call you a valuable natural resource—they're gonna strip-mine your soul; theyr'e gonna clear cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit unless you learn to resist."

In Crean's book, I tried inserting a bit about how it might be a good selling point to let customers know your company is one in which employees participate in the success via profit-sharing plans (as those at Crean's Fleetwood Enterprises did). He nixed the line as too Pollyannaish, saying that all most customers really care about is getting the best deal. That's probably too true. Some years back, Walton had a buy-American program at Wal-Mart, and customers weren't willing to pay the little bit extra it took to ensure that U.S. garment and factory workers, their neighbors, were earning a half-decent wage.

Now, shopping at Wal-Mart is like the poor person's version of buying a mink. The rich can pamper themselves with the notion that their personal luxury matters more than the lives of a pelt-load of nice furry animals; the Wal-Mart shopper can get that same guilty pleasure knowing their cheap slacks were made by a mother working 10-hour shifts at a noisy, dangerous machine in a sweltering corrugated-metal super-shed in Costa Rica. Yes, I bought the Wranglers, so who am I to stand outside the door of sin and throw spitwads? Well, we are all sinners. And we all must repent.

We can gripe about greedy bosses until the cows come home, are butchered and served on a bun, but the way success is defined these days, exploiting people is just regarded as part of the CEO's job. Ultimately, it's up to the individual citizen and his or her wallet to see that business is accountable, and that's the essential check on the system that has broken down. Blame our bread-and-circuses leadership and media, blame the concentration of wealth and power that steamrolls over the public good, blame cynicism and resignation, but it still comes down to this: If we acquiesce to the Wall-to-Wal-Martization of our world, that's the world we deserve.

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